Classical music needs new Top 40

Ever wondered why there's no Top 40 list of new classical music?

OK, I hadn't either - until recently. Oh, sure, there's a classical music Top 50, or maybe even a Top 70 or Top 100. But nearly all these pieces were written before the turn of the 20th century. So we have "classic" classical music, hits that just keep on comin' century after century.

But where's the "buzz" about new works? Nowhere, at least among the general public.

It's not that new ideas aren't out there. Orchestras around the United States will debut well over 100 new works in the coming season, according to a list in the current issue of Symphony magazine.

The turn of the millennium, in particular, is generating new compositions. Walt Disney chairman Michael Eisner has commissioned two huge new "Millennium Symphonies" that will be premired together by the New York Philharmonic Oct. 8. The compositions call for full orchestra and adult and boys' choirs (no Mickey Mouse compositions these).

The traditional approach to playing "modern" orchestral music (and even early-20th-century composers like Arnold Schoenberg, who died in 1951, fit in this category) is to "sandwich" it between, say a Mozart piano concerto and a Beethoven symphony. That manages to make much of the audience feel trapped: Unlike at an art museum, where they can stroll away from an offending work, concertgoers find no exit from what they assume will be an unpleasant assault on their ears.

This isn't how to win fans for new orchestral music, argues Michael Steinberg in the article "Open Ears, Open Minds" in the

current issue of Symphony.

The goal should be an audience filled with excitement and anticipation, not dread.

"First, we want the audience to be on the edge of their seats, listening - I mean really listening, not just being there, not even just being there and being awake - listening ... as if they knew it was the last time they would be allowed to hear it," writes Mr. Steinberg, a former music critic and currently the program annotator for the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

How to do it? His suggestions include:

*Program new works next to familiar pieces that compare and contrast in intriguing ways.

*Send out a CD sampler ahead of time to season-ticketholders to familiarize them with the new works. Even a few well-prepared concertgoers can lend a tone of audience anticipation to the performance.

*Make sure conductor and orchestra have time to thoroughly learn the piece themselves, so they can give a first-rate performance. (He quotes Schoenberg as saying, "My music isn't modern, it's just badly performed.")

*Provide interesting program notes that make audiences eager to hear the music.

*Conduct pre-concert talks about the new music. Ban the use of phrases like "diminished seventh" and "hexachord." But encourage a sudden bolt over to the piano to illustrate a point.

The orchestra, Steinberg says, wants to say to its audience, "Trust me, [this new music is] not a fraud or a scam, it's good, it's real, it's worthwhile." It must begin earning that trust by keeping its end of the bargain.

*Send comments to entertainment@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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